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Gene Editing Could Speed Research Solutions for Farmers


Over the last three decades, the biotechnology buzzword phrase for agriculture has been “genetically modified organism” — GMO for short — now found in 10 commercially-grown food and fiber crops in the U.S.

They include corn (field and sweet), soybeans, cotton, alfalfa, potatoes, canola, papaya, sugar beets, and squash, and the latest food staple — apples.

While agricultural technology companies are expected to continue GMO research, some, including Monsanto, are placing some of their eggs in another research basket: gene editing. This recent technique could deliver new and potentially faster crop improvements to farmers.

For three decades, Dr. Larry Gilbertson, molecular biologist, has worked with biotech genes, including a wide range of research at Monsanto over the last 23 years. His voice oozes with excitement as he discusses the potential benefits of gene editing for agriculture.

“It’s the most exciting technology I’ve been involved in,” says Gilbertson, who leads Monsanto’s Applied Genome Modification Team, which focuses 100 percent on gene editing.

“This is a new tool — a new way of modifying the DNA of a living organism,” he says. “It allows us to make precise and accurate changes in the DNA of plants, including cotton, corn, soybeans, and others.” Everything about a plant is determined by its DNA, he notes. “For example, all of the traits that make a corn plant resistant to drought or increase soybean plant yield, are related to its DNA.”

How do gene edited plants differ from so-called GMO plants? With GMOs, scientists typically add a gene or two from another organism — typically from a bacterium to a plant — to create biotech (Bt) cotton and corn, plus herbicide tolerance, all “very useful traits for growers.”

More direct transfer

With gene editing, genes are not traded between organisms. Instead, one or two genes from a plant’s existing “gene alphabet” are removed and added or rearranged. A single corn plant has nearly three billion A, C, G, and T genes.

“Gene editing has the potential to get traits into different inbreds and varieties more directly,” Gilbertson says. In other words, it is basically breeding technology — trying to introduce variation in the DNA to produce more direct and precise improvements in plant traits.

Monsanto is in its “early days” of gene editing research, but Gilbertson says, the concepts could benefit growers in many agricultural production areas, including the Mid-South, by hopefully improving plant productivity (yield), disease, and drought resistances, and in principle, reducing a plant’s reliance on inputs.

He hopes gene editing can deliver answers to farmers faster, but as of yet that’s really unknown.

“I believe that would be the case,” he says, “but that remains to be seen.”

Faster legislative approval?

Since changes occur in a single plant, not between plants, another potential benefit from gene editing could be a faster process for government regulatory approval.

“How regulatory agencies view gene editing is still evolving,” Gilbertson says, “so we don’t know for sure how this could play out around the world. We have reason to believe that regulatory agencies are beginning to look at gene editing as breeding technology, because that’s essentially what it is.”

With potentially fewer costs required to bring a product to market, he believes smaller companies, universities, and non-profit organizations could be more involved in gene editing, and not just larger companies.

In his LinkedIn account, Gilbertson says, “I believe gene editing really does open up many possibilities to continuously improve crops, in ways that complement breeding methods, to deliver value to farmers and beyond.”

Monsanto spokesperson Camille Scott says gene editing may allow smaller companies to bring more solutions to farmers, as well as developing technologies in smaller acreage crops that have been underserved in the past. But that remains to be seen.

In the end, she says, gene editing and other modern agriculture technologies are about delivering efficient solutions to farmers. “We anticipate that the beneficiary of these developments and investments really will be the farmer.”

Early GMO strides

A boots on the ground advocate of biotechnology as a tool for farmers is Dr. Scott Stewart, professor and integrated pest management row crops specialist at the University of Tennessee. Before coming to Tennessee, he was at Mississippi State University when, in 1996, Bt cotton was first commercially released.

“At the time, Bt cotton was an agricultural miracle,” says Stewart, now based at UT’s West Tennessee Research and Education Center at Jackson. “Bt technology provides essentially perfect control of the tobacco budworm. It was a huge deal.”

He believes the technology probably saved the cotton industry in the Mid-South and other areas. He recalls the year before Bt cotton’s introduction, when tobacco budworms devastated cotton production in many areas of the Mid-South and forced Mississippi cotton farmers to plow up about 25 percent of the state’s acreage due to damage by the destructive pest.

Biotech cotton has saved farmers hundreds of millions of dollars, Stewart says. “That, in itself, is a pretty substantial impact.”

Today, he evaluates new pest management solutions in cotton, soybeans, and corn to determine whether new products add value for farmers and help reduce pest problems. Overall, he believes technology delivers simplicity to agriculture.

Simplification of farming

“The No. 1 thing farmers talk about in terms of GMO technology is that it’s brought about the simplification of farming,” Stewart says. “All of a sudden, insect and weed control became a lot easier. It definitely increased production efficiency, and made it easier to farm more acres with a simplified pest control system.”

Insect control technologies have considerably reduced crop yield fluctuations, he says. “It’s not so much that the technology drove higher yields, but rather that it prevented yield losses and reduced wide swings in yield.”

The biggest issue currently facing all growers in the Mid-South and Southeast, Stewart says, is herbicide-resistant weeds in GMO crops. A huge problem last year was the movement of dicamba when it was applied for weed control in dicamba-tolerant cotton and soybean varieties — demonstrating the need to use new technology wisely.

Overall, Stewart is convinced that Mid-South growers have a good appreciation of the value of technologies. Almost every cotton acre in Tennessee uses GMO-based weed and insect control technologies, he says. In addition to the high use of Bt corn, the vast majority of corn and soybeans is planted with GMO technologies that offer tolerance to one or more herbicides.

“This tells us that growers value the technology, because they are paying for it,” he says. “If the technologies weren’t providing value to the end user, growers would switch back pretty quickly.”

Buck stops here

Andrew Walmsley, director of congressional relations for the American Farm Bureau Federation, says the nation’s largest farm organization supports technology as a continuing tool for farmers, but that it must have transparency with consumers to gain regulatory approval.

“I hope we’ve learned lessons from the GMO debate — that consumers want information, and that we must communicate science transparently. The majority of consumers are OK with this, but they don’t want to feel they’ve been left in the dark.”

Walmsley believes farm productivity will improve through gene editing and further biotech gains, as well as with developments in precision agriculture and expanded broadband use in rural areas that will allow data use to increase in importance to farmers.

Source: Cary Blake, Delta Farm Press

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